The Sun King by Nancy Mitford (audio, narrated by Charlton Griffin)

Earlier this month I was invited by Trevor of the Mookse and the Gripes to be a guest on Episode 6 of his (and his brother Brian’s) monthly podcast.  The book under discussion:  The NYRB Classics edition of The Sun King by Nancy Mitford.

To begin with – I am fascinated by the Mitfords.  Something you may have caught on to if you listened in on the podcast.  Six sisters, and none of them boring.  One was a brilliant writer; two Fascists; one a Communist (and muckraker-journalist); one married & divorced a scientist/millionaire playboy and then went on to live openly (and much more happily) with her female partner; and one became a duchess.  It does sound a bit like a twisted nursery rhyme. 

The Mitford are something of an industry in (and out of) the UK.  All six were beautiful, witty, fashionable and remarkably unpleasant based on what they reveal in their letters to each other.   And while I’d most likely have hated them if we’d ever met, from a distance they glimmer with a kind of faerie glamor.  They are the Kardashians of the London Blitz – only more intellectual and interesting.

Nancy Mitford, the eldest, was a talented novelist and (I learned upon reading this book) biographer.  Prior to The Sun King I’m embarrassed to admit to being familiar only with her novels and short stories.  The most famous are the Fanny Wincham née Logan stories – The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate and Don’t Tell Alfred!  Fanny, who narrates, was based on a Mitford cousin.  In fact, any reader familiar with the Mitford’s will recognize several of the characters.  And, be warned, most readers quickly become familiar with the family history.  It’s difficult to avoid it.  The stories are packed with auto-biographical references, which in turn further contributes to the Mitford mystique – something I’ve read that the surviving sisters were very aware of.  There is an incestuous relationship between biography and fiction in everything Nancy wrote.  The fact is that nothing is ever quite as fascinating to a Mitford as a Mitford.

Vanity aside, the books are ridiculously entertaining.  I frequently recommend Nancy Mitford novels to friends who enjoy Jane Austen, BBC costume dramas and Wodehouse.

And now I can begin recommending the biographies as well.  The Sun King is written in the same irreverent tone with which the author approached her fiction.   “Scandalous” is an adjective that frequently comes to mind.  There is a definite tabloid quality in how she tells the stories of Louis XIV’s many mistresses, the fates of his children (legitimate and not) and the vying for the King’s favor amongst the nobles of the French court.  The wars fought during his reign, the Spanish throne (which was filled by Louis’ grandson, Philip V of Spain), the revocation of the Edict of of Nantes and the subsequent violent persecution of Protestants – all of this is secondary in importance to the scandals of Versailles.* 

Mitford often breezes past important historical events, focussing instead on witty little anecdotes and one liners that would make a Hollywood action scriptwriter drool.  For example, regarding the King’s frequent change of mistresses – “the Marquise de Maintenon, meeting the Marquise de Montespan on the Queen’s staircase, remarked in her dry way: ‘You are going down, Madame? I am going up.’ “

Sharp, witty, a little mean – these are Nancy Mitford hallmarks.  And she doesn’t disappoint here, delivering acidic observations starting on page one. “Louis XIV fell in love with Versailles and Louise de La Vallière at the same time; Versailles was the love of his life.”  

What makes this biography successful is the authorial voice – so recognizable to those of us who love the novels.  And let’s be honest, few people are going to pick up The Sun King strictly for the history (which even Philip Mansel in the introduction admits is sketchy in places). Much more thorough books exist on this subject.  But that doesn’t make what history it does discuss any less fascinating.  And, in the hands Mitford, any less entertaining.  Quite the opposite.

The audio edition of The Sun King, published by The NYRB Classics and narrated by Charlton Griffin is a wonderful listen.  The hours fly by, with Griffin using just the right tone and keeping with the overall gossipy feel of the author’s prose.  And I’m sure reading the print edition – on a lazy Sunday afternoon at home or poolside on vacation – would be just as enjoyable.  And added bonus:  The Sun King also works as a gateway to heavier, more scholarly tomes on the subject.  It’s a wonderful, relaxing way to pass a few hours.  And, when it’s done, you can’t help but think: how VERY Mitford it all was.

To listen to Trevor, Brian & my discussion of The Sun King follow the link to The Mookse & The Gripes Podcast, Episode 6.

Publisher:  The NYRB Classics, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 1 590 17491 3

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*In contrast to the girl’s school set up by Louis’ second wife, which Mitford devotes pages & pages to.

Must You Go, My Life with Harold Pinter by Antonia Fraser (audiobook)

Must You GoIf there’s one thing you walk away with after reading Antonia Fraser’s memoir Must You Go, My Life with Harold Pinter, it’s that she and her second husband Harold Pinter were deeply in love.  Reading a memoir that doesn’t focus exclusively on tribulations its author has overcome is refreshing.  Remarkable, even.  Fraser has chosen to share what appears to be the happiest period of her life.  And in the process proves Tolstoy wrong.

At a party in 1975 Antonia Fraser was involved in a conversation that included the playwright Harold Pinter.  She was taking her leave when Pinter turned to her and asked “Must you go?”.  And there it began.  Both parties were married – Antonia with six children.  The affair continued until 1977, when she divorced her first husband in the amicable manner that seemed to be the defining characteristic of their marriage.  Pinter’s separation from his wife, the actress Vivien Merchant, was less amicable.  The British tabloids had a field day and Merchant refused to sign the divorce papers until 1980.  Fraser and Pinter married that same year and lived happily together until his death of cancer in 2008.

This 35 year period is told to us through excerpts of Fraser’s journals with some narrative explanation.  She appears to be a rabid diarist – never missing a day.  Which is funny when you consider that she’s a biographer by profession, accustomed to perusing her subjects’ diaries, letters and papers in the course of her research.  The entries that make up the book are not so much stream-of-conscious ramblings or emotional outpourings as they are concise cataloging of the day’s most interesting events.   Fortunately Pinter and Fraser lived interesting lives and knew interesting people – so most of their days together are worth re-visiting.  The name dropping that takes place on these pages is almost shameful!  Jackie-O, Salman Rushdie, Samuel Beckett, Philip Roth… the list of literati seems never-ending.  But her commentary is never salacious.  These were the circles the couple traveled in, and as you read you get the sense that Dame Fraser would never commit the impolitesse of gossiping about friends.

I really enjoyed Must You Go, as I have every book I’ve ever read by Antonia Fraser.  It may not be for everyone, though.  One Goodreads reviewer negatively compared Must You Go to “reading a daytimer”, and to be fair the description isn’t far off.  It is this gift of brevity - Antonia Fraser’s ability to capture a moment in a deftly executed prose sketch – that makes her memoir so charming.  Little jokes, witty descriptions, notes left on the pages by Pinter (which she welcomed) – it is the description of a full life encapsulated in a few lines a day.  Fraser had the sense not to overwork the prose, or expand too much on the things her audience already knew. At times her admiration of Pinter seems almost worshipful, but the book was published 2 years after his death.  Her loss is fresh.  She obviously misses him.  Equally obvious is her happiness in remembering.

Is it a complete picture?  Probably not.  But Must You Go is a glimpse into their private world.  Fraser has every right to choose what she shares.

The audio version, which is what I listened to, is narrated by the incomparable Sandra Duncan.  Her inflections are flawless.  The 11 hours and 14 minutes moved by quickly, the only off note being the choice made to have the poetry by Harold Pinter which is referenced throughout voiced by a man.  Whether it would have flowed so well or been so entertaining to read in book form, I’m not sure.  I tend to think it would be.  Yet there was something delightfully intimate about hearing it read (it’s written in the first person) as if Fraser was relating the stories over tea.  In fact, I intend to avoid interviews given by the real Antonia Fraser.  If her true voice differs too much from Duncan’s I’ll be devastated.

AudioBook Publisher:  Whole Story AudioBooks, Leicestershire (2010)
ISBN:  978 1 409 11523 6 or through Audibles.com

Print Book Publisher:  Nan A. Talese, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 0 385 53250 1

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